Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


All right, enough about film. Let's talk about books.
The King Arthur legends, also known as the Matter of Britain, seem to have taken their place as the dominant legends of England. It's been told and retold many times over the years: by Geoffrey of Monmouth (one of the earliest versions of the myth), by Thomas Malory (the most famous English retelling), by Chretien de Troyes (most famous French retelling), by forgotten Inkling Charles Williams (most brilliantly, allusively confusing) and by many others.
One of the most recent versions of the legend is by Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate to Queen Victoria. His Idylls of the King is a collection of long poetry in blank verse centred around one great theme: a high and noble enterprise—the building of Logres, God's kingdom on earth—bearing within itself the seeds of a mighty destruction. The introduction to my 1922 version reads-- “--the overthrow of Arthur's great constructive scheme and of his high ideals appears as the direct result of the sin of her who should have been his most powerful helper.” At first, the guilty love of Guinevere and Lancelot is barely a note; as each of the poems moves the story forward, however, the note becomes one huge theme that brings all of Logres crashing down.
Although the cycle of poems covers decades, each poem takes place within a specific season: the foundation of Logres and the wedding of the King in spring, the tales of adventure in high summer, the Quest of the Grail—with forebodings of destructing—in autumn, and the death and desolation of Logres in darkest winter.
The poems contained in the Idylls are as follows:
  1. The Coming of Arthur, telling how Arthur became King and won Guinevere for his wife:
    “What happiness to reign a lonely king,
    Vext—O ye stars that shudder over me,
    O earth that soundest hollow under me,
    Vext with waste dreams? For saving I be join'd
    To her that is the fairest under heaven,
    I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
    And cannot will my will nor work my work
    Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
    Victor and lord. But were I join'd with her,
    Then might we live together as one life,
    And reigning with one will in everything
    Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
    And power on this dead world to make it live.”
  2. Gareth and Lynette, a retelling of the story originally invented by Malory.
    “--O mother,
    How can ye keep me tether'd to you?--Shame.
    Man am I grown, a man's work must I do.
    Follow the deer? Follow Christ, the King,
    Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King--
    Else, wherefore born?”
    There's a cute twist at the end of this one. Tennyson refers to Malory right at the end, where he gives Sir Gareth not the sister who he rescued, but the sister who guided him into adventure:
    And he that told the tale in older times
    Says that Sir Gareth wedded Lyonors,
    But he that told it later says Lynette.

  3. The Marriage of Gereint comes from the Mabinogion and Chretien de Troyes and has always been one of my favourite stories.
  4. Gereint and Enid finishes off the story begun in The Marriage of Gereint.
  5. Balin and Balan tells one of the few really tragic substories from the cycle.
  6. Merlin and Vivien casts the enchanter as a fool and the fay as a vicious power-mad schemer—rather unusual, but thought-provoking.
  7. Lancelot and Elaine provided the inspiration for the famous episode in Anne of Green Gables where our heroine nearly gets drowned “floating down to Camelot”.
  8. The Holy Grail is a particularly metaphysical version of the original legend.
  9. Pelleas and Ettare, adapted from Malory, is a sad story of unrequited love and disillusionment.
  10. The Last Tournament is the beginning of the end.
  11. Guinevere is a particular favourite of mine—on the eve of his last battle, the King visits his wife in the nunnery where she has fled, crippled by remorse—and forgives her.
  12. Finally, The Passing of Arthur is the telling of the last battle, and the departure of the King into the West.
The Idylls of the King is well worth reading to anyone interested in good stories and good poetry. Tennyson's retelling of the story takes the main focus off the story of the Holy Grail, in most versions central to the story; instead, the main theme is the King, his knight Lancelot, and their love for the Queen. The Holy Grail, as argued by Charles Williams in The Figure of Arthur was originally the indispensable apex of the Arthurian myth: I myself would say that its achievement is a symbol of the embodiment of the Kingdom of God in the Kingdom of Logres. But in Tennyson, the Grail is a very unsubstantial thing; only Galahad attains it; it is separated from the narrator Percivale by unfathomable distance and surreal imagery and it contributes much to the breaking of the fellowship of the Table. The real spiritual and emotional heft of Tennyson's story depends on the slow dissolution of glorious Logres: one sin, the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, slowly works its way through the whole of Logres until in Pelleas and Ettare and The Last Tournament Logres has almost become a parody of itself—discourteous, adulterous, disillusioned.
The telling of this story is profound and masterful—but in some ways somewhat unlike the Arthur legends. The Idylls are very much a product, not of real medievalism, but of the Victorian medievalist revival. A thought-provoking, haunting, beautiful work and a pleasure to read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, more about Tennyson here if you are interested http://www.lordalfredtennyson.com

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